Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Book Ramble: In the Shadow of The Shadows of the Apt

I really don't read epic fantasy.

This has nothing to do with how much I like or don't like epic fantasy, but everything to do with a lack of hours in the day, or at least a desire to read as diversely as I can in the limited time that I have.

So it was that when I picked up Adrian Tchaikovsky's debut novel Empire in Black and Gold, it wasn't with any intention of reading beyond that point.  I didn't know Adrian back then, I wasn't familiar with his work because I was hopelessly ignorant of the publishing scene in general, but he'd been kind enough to provide a blurb for Giant Thief and I had an idea of thanking him in a small way by picking up one of his books.  It seemed like about the least I could do; but not being a reader of epic fantasy, I fully assumed that that would be the end of it.

Yet here we are, however many years later, and I just finished Seal of the Worm, book ten in the series that Empire began.  So clearly something went very wrong.  Or very right.  Or perhaps a bit of both.

First up, I feel obliged to point out, if only to myself, that The Shadows of the Apt isn't really epic fantasy at all.  I mean, yes, it's epic and yes it's fantasy, but ... okay, maybe it sort of is.  But that's about the lowest level it's operating on; epic fantasy is SotA when it's idling, and how many such series can claim that?  It's the premise, that's the thing: a reality where humans have acquired what amount to superpowers by emulating various insect species, and then are further divided into the technologically able Apt and the magically inclined Inapt, who understand so little of machinery that they can't so much as pull the trigger of a crossbow.  It's a setting that works equally well as science-fiction and fantasy, and SotA treads a hair-thin line between the two, but those twin central concepts have advantages well beyond that.  They lead to a world, for example, that can still offer surprises all the way into its tenth book, as we're drip-fed new insect-kinden with new, crazy powers, but also entire new cultures, each detailed with loving affection.  Those two marvelous notions collide against each other in endlessly interesting ways, and while perhaps neither alone could warrant seven thousand and some words, somehow the two in combination provide an all but limitless scope.

(I'll admit it here, a little shamefacedly: I got to the end of book ten and found myself wanting more.)

If that was all SotA had going for it, however, I suspect I'd have drifted away, a little sadly, somewhere round about book four or five.  The thing is, The Shadows of the Apt is also an alternate history of about two hundred years of human progress, twisted and reshuffled but still potently reminiscent of our own recent triumphs and misdeeds.  At the risk of slight spoilers, the world of the Apt sees its own blitz, its own industrial revolution, even its own terrible equivalent of the holocaust.  And only as I got towards the end of the series did I fully appreciate how much that was what kept me reading: beneath the magic, the fantasy, the intriguing alternate technologies, there is in these ten books a deconstruction of our own development as a species, at our worst and our best.  The results are sometimes devastating and sometimes hopeful; Adrian's bug-people aren't quite us, and often they avoid our mistakes, or else manufacture even worse horrors of their own.  Still, there was rarely a point when I felt I was reading a work with nothing to say about my own reality and its bloody, tragic, occasionally marvelous history.  In the end, these books aren't escapism; instead, they're a side step into a might-have-been world with all the frailties and potentialities of our own, one that in turn has no end of things to say about the ways we've chosen to make ourselves and each other suffer, how we might have done better, how we might do yet.

There's plenty more I could talk about here - Adrian's Miyazaki-like refusal to give us villains who are anything less than fully comprehensible human beings certainly warrants an essay all of its own - but in the end it's perhaps enough to just point out that these are tremendously good books, works of exceeding cleverness and imagination, and you should absolutely give them a go if you haven't already.

Just be prepared for the fact that once you start, it might be a while before you stop...

Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories Finds New Home

So, the last time I talked about my collection The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories - collecting  horror and dark fantasy stories from basically all across my career, and every one of them illustrated by the super-talented Mr Duncay Kay - things were looking pretty bleak.  Having spent some considerable time putting the project together with Simon Marshall-Jones and Spectral Press, I'd made the decision to withdraw the book on the back of delays and other problems that would, literally the following day, come to a head in such catastrophic fashion that for a few days it seemed like all the particular corner of the internet I inhabit was talking about.

That was, I suppose, only a couple of weeks ago, but it seems like a lifetime; a great deal has happened since.  Most of that is thanks to Michael Wills over at Digital Fiction Publishing, who has put in a quite extraordinary amount of effort into getting the project not only back on its feet but fighting fit and, as of a couple of days ago, pretty much ready for release.  I mean, seriously, you wouldn't believe just how quickly this thing went from "oh crap, it looks like we now don't have a publisher for this book we've invested two whole years into" to "wait, is that finished?"  I shouldn't have been surprised because I've worked with Michael quite a bit now in regards to his imprint Digital Science Fiction, but this was still all rather dizzying.  I mean, we now have a completed book, and it's coming out next month.  That's pretty cool, right?  Oh, and not to forget, we also have an exciting new cover design, which is over there on the right.

Hopefully, though, that's not all the news.  I'm in talks over the possibility of hardback and audiobook editions, which may or may not come to something in the next few days.  Fingers crossed, right?  And in the meantime, if anyone's interested in a review copy of The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories then feel free to drop me a note at the address on the contact page.  I'm biased, obviously, but I'm starting to feel like this little book might just be something kind of special.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 8

A particularly strange batch this time around, as I delve into some corners of nineties anime that would probably have been better left unexplored.  Still, it hasn't all been doom and gloom and horrifying tentacle sex.  This session's also managed to turn into something of a Masamune Shirow retrospective, even if I've failed to cover my personal favourite adaptation of his work and one of my all-time favourite films, Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell.

I guess that one gets saved for a special occasion; I haven't yet given up on the hope of doing one of these where everything is actually good.  But in the meantime it's the usual case of taking the great with the mediocre and utterly awful, and so we have: Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend, New Dominion Tank Police, Street Fighter 2: The Movie and the very first adaption of Appleseed...

Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend, 1989, Hideki Takayama

Legend of the Overfiend is notorious for one reason: it's the film that introduced the notion of tentacle rape as a genre to the West.  And for that selfsame reason I didn't exactly rush to see it.  I mean, to say the absolute sodding least.

You might say that a completionist spirit led me here, but actually I think I'd just convinced myself - having failed to be shocked by so much anime that was probably shocking in its day - that Legend probably wasn't half as bad as its reputation.  And in a sense, I was right.  For a start, the animation is pretty dreadful, which goes a great way to declawing the interminable scenes of violence, be it sexual or otherwise.  And for another start, it's achingly stupid and just so basically bad in so many fundamental ways - script, direction, animation, stuff like that - that it's difficult to take seriously.

Still, it's a pretty damn sordid and demoralizing experience all told.  I've seen the film defended on the grounds that it's more misanthropic than it is misogynistic, and maybe there's a grain of truth to that, but you know what?  You don't see any men getting raped anywhere, even if quite a few do get exploded.  No, what really made the film all but unwatchable for me was the sense that no one amongst the makers understood on any level that women were people, that they might conceivably serve some function that didn't involve sex or murder, and - somehow worst of all - that the horrendousness it portrays would leave any meaningful impact.  I mean, if you can't craft characters who react to their experiences from scene to scene then that's just plain bad writing, regardless of how depressingly horrid it might make your creation.

But let's divert just ever so slightly to admit that I didn't altogether hate every minute of Legend of the Overfiend.  The thing is, like so much of what I've talked about here, this was actually an OVA originally, and things do noticeably pick up in the last third.  In fact, once the titular overfiend appeared and the filmmakers tired of throwing about rape and death to little actual purpose and the animation quality picked up to a startling degree, I was shocked to discover that I was kind of entertained.  I mean, not so much that it erased my basic loathing of the first two thirds, but enough to surprise me at least, and enough to make me think that if the makers hadn't been so determined to construct something rancid and shocking then there was the basis of a solid story in here somewhere.

I suppose I thought on some level that I needed to see Legend of the Overfiend.  Now I'm more of the opinion that no one really needs to see Legend of the Overfiend.  It's basically vile, and only occasionally does that vileness take imaginative forms that give it some value as a work of horror.  Or to put it another way, just because something does a thing first, that does not necessarily make that thing worth doing.

New Dominion Tank Police, 1993, dir: Noboru Furuse

I actually have this and its preceding OVA on VHS, which makes me feel kind of old.  Anyway, I remember not rating it greatly the first time around, having come to it on the back of Dominion Tank Police, a fact that befuddled me slightly on a rewatch because it's really a lot of fun.  Tank Police in whatever its incarnation is a creation of the famed Masamune Shirow, known also for the ever-expanding Appleseed franchise but primarily for Ghost in the Shell, and generally a man who was a name to conjure with in the early nineties.  The Tank Police universe sees him in light-hearted and broadly satiric mode, with a story set in the unimaginably distant future of 2016 and the fictional city of Newport, Japan, in which crime and terror levels are perceived to have escalated to such an absurd degree that the police have deemed arming themselves with tanks a reasonable measure.

Because that would never happen, right?

Which is to say that New Dominion Tank Police has lost a little of its edge in the nearly three decades since its original release, as reality caught up with and then overtook it in increasingly depressing ways - but that actually makes it easier to enjoy, so let's not focus entirely on the negatives.  New Dominion Tank Police is, if I remember rightly, a lot more grounded than the original miniseries was, and content to coast off parodying cop shows and other cliches, but there's still plenty to enjoy here, and a couple of the six episodes are genuinely excellent.  The animation is also terrific in places, particularly the opening sequence, and generally I found myself enjoying it a great deal more than I'd expected to.  It's frequently funny, some of the action is terrific, the characters are likable and its only real weakness is a saggy arc plot with some lackluster corporate villains.  If you can find it cheaply, as you probably can, then I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it, but particularly if you have any affection for the Patlabor TV series, which it closely resembles.


Street Fighter 2: The Movie, 1994, dir: Gisaburo Sugii

If you imagine that an anime movie should exist of the (at the time) hugely popular video game Street Fighter 2, and if you imagine that huge quantities of money were thrown at it, and if you further imagine that its main goal was not to tell a coherent story with rich, three dimensional characters but to cram as much Street Fighter 2-ishness as possible into an hour and a half run-time then - congratulations! - you've probably imagined something an awfully lot like Street Fighter 2: The Movie.  The story, if one can so abuse the word, involves the villainous Bison stalking the various fighters from the series with his evil organisation Shadowlaw, in a bid to find and kidnap the very greatest and brainwash them into serving as his assassins.  (Why he doesn't just kidnap the lot of them, and why he's going to so much trouble when he isn't exactly short of assassins, and indeed why Bison doesn't just assassinate people himself when he's practically unkillable, are questions the film doesn't even think about beginning to answer.)

So, yes, it's pretty stupid, and a thinly veiled excuse to give every character their moment and an opportunity, however tenuous, to show off their moves.  What rescues it, somewhat, is the standard of the animation, which is largely phenomenal, and in particular the backgrounds, which are probably the most beautiful and detailed I've ever seen - and should have been put to the service of a much better film.  The thing is, unless you're absolutely obsessed with a video game from more than two decades ago then a story strung together from fight after fight pales quickly.  And it helps not at all that the only character who even threatens to have an arc, Chun-Li, gets treated scummily on account of her gender: having suffered through a gratuitous shower scene and then been nearly murdered in her underwear (frustratingly the film's best fight scene, thanks to a real sense of danger lacking elsewhere) she spends the entire second half in a coma.  I mean, seriously?  With two female characters to work with, that was where they chose to go?  Nineties anime, sometimes you test me sorely.

I'd heard so many good things about Street Fighter 2: The Movie that I'd hoped there might be something there to appeal to even a non-fan like myself.  And there kind of is - that lavish animation, those gorgeous backdrops - but all told, it wasn't enough.  Still, it's hard not to recommend just a little, it has a definite nostalgic charm and it really does look wonderful in places.  Just don't expect even the faintest glimmer of a plot, that's all I'm saying.

Appleseed, dir: Kazuyoshi Katayama, 1988

What do you know, it's another Masamune Shirow adaptation; didn't I tell you he was everywhere?  Appleseed hails from the same year as the original Dominion Tank Police, and was itself also an OVA, though the version that Manga would eventually pass off had been - quelle surprise! - re-edited so that it looked like a movie, so long as your expectations of what a movie involved didn't extend to it being more than about an hour in length.  Or, you know, not awfully animated.

No, that's harsh.  Well, it isn't particularly - there's certain animation in Appleseed, such as the simple act of people walking, that's amongst the worst I've seen anywhere in anime - but I feel like it should be better than it is because, to my considerable astonishment, this represents early work by studio Gainax, who I've mentioned glowingly here before.  There are glimpses of talent, it has to be said, particularly when it comes to bringing Shirow's uniquely recognisable mecha designs to life.  But overall, Appleseed looks pretty shoddy, even by 1988 standards, and the score - full of tuneless eighties noodling - is flat out terrible.

So with not much to distinguish Appleseed on the technical front, we find ourselves left to judge largely on its story.  The translation is dismal and needlessly sweary - because Manga video - and so it's hard to judge the plot entirely on its own merits, but even with that caveat there's not a great deal going on here.  There's the core of an intriguing narrative, one that probes the notion of a flawed Utopian society and of benevolent dictatorships, but then that intriguing narrative is Shirow's original Manga, which this adapts with little apparent understanding of its subtleties.  As it stands, there's not much going on to appeal to the intellect, and what there is gets quickly hamstrung by a script that seems deeply muddy on its own themes.  Much hangs on the notion that Appleseed's futuristic paradise Olympus is a gilded cage, but the film fails to sell that notion at all, and in its absence it's not easy to understand why anyone would conspire so hard to blow up the last properly inhabitable place on the planet.

Where does that leave us?  Well, Appleseed certainly isn't horrible.  Passable is probably more the word.  And to be fair, it kept me fairly engaged throughout its running time, when I wasn't cringing at the stupid translation or the wonky animation.  Um.  No, this isn't a recommendation, isn't?  Probably one for hardcore Shirow fans and admirers of the sort of sci-fi shows where people in the far-distant future are still using faxes, I'm afraid.

-oOo-

I talked up top about taking the good with the dross, but this turned out to one of those basically terrible entries.  I swear, I don't plan this stuff at all.  Well, there's a fair chance that we'll do better next time around, with the caveat that I still have the sequel to Legend of the Overfiend to watch the next time I'm filled with self-hatred and a willingness to make my eyeballs want to retreat into my skull.  And, you know, Dominion Tank Police was pretty fun, so that's something.




[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6, Part 7]

Monday, 18 January 2016

Patchwerk is Out! Reality Explodes!

Patchwerk is finally out!  Woo!

I mean, it will be tomorrow - that is, Tuesday the 19th of January.  My first novella, my first time working with the mighty Tor.com - fingers crossed it won't be the last - and, now that I think about it, my first published long-form work of science fiction.  Not that science fiction is precisely what Patchwerk is.  But it's certainly what it starts as.  Or is that saying too much?

An admission: it's very hard to talk about Patchwerk even slightly without spoilering it.  The thing is, it starts out as one thing and ... but, no, better if you don't know that.  You might just have to take my word on this one.

Or - hey! - here's the blurb, with actual information in it:

Fleeing the city of New York on the TransContinental atmospheric transport, Dran Florrian is traveling with Palimpsest - the ultimate proof of a lifetime of scientific theorizing.

When a rogue organization attempts to steal the device, however, Dran takes drastic action.

But his invention threatens to destroy the very fabric of this and all other possible universes, unless Dran - or someone very much like him-can shut down the machine and reverse the process.

So, basically, all of reality is at stake, and it's up to scientist / super-spy Dran Florrian (or, as the cover points out, a potential infinitude of people an awful lot like him) to put things back together again, before a revolutionary invention with a mind of its own and the keys to all of creation does something that everyone might regret.

Is that any clearer?

If not then perhaps some of the interviews, articles and whatnot that are out or coming up will shed some useful light.  Though, I fear, probably not, because I've been being purposefully vague there too.  In fact, I largely used the first of my articles with Tor.com to witter on about nineties anime some more, and managed not to mention Patchwerk once.  My article on my favourite works that deal with plastic and alternate realities, up at SF Signal,  is a lot more revealing, but even then only if you read between the lines a little.  Perhaps the interviews I have coming up will prove more enlightening.  Or hopefully all of this vagueness will somehow persuade you that you should a) pick up a copy of Patchwerk and find out what's going on for yourself and b) that you should come to it with as little foreknowledge as possible.  And to end on a serious note, if you are planning to buy a copy then those early sales are absolutely crucial, so please, don't delay!  I mean, who knows if reality will still be here tomorrow...

Saturday, 9 January 2016

The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories Withdrawn From Spectral

It's probably no secret by now that there have been some long-standing problems in regards to mine and artist Duncan Kay's collection The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories and its release from UK small press Spectral; it's no secret by now, either, that Spectral has been having some significant difficulties which have culminated in it falling under the banner of another UK small press, Tickety Boo, as an effort to get to grips with its considerable debts and outstanding pre-orders.

Just before that happened, Duncan and I made the final decision to withdraw our work from Spectral.  This wasn't related in any direct way to the wider turmoil, though I suppose in retrospect that it was all part and parcel of the same thing.  At any rate, the chain of events was this: after a series of delays since the book's intended release date of August last year, we had agreed a final release date, which it became apparent wasn't going to be met.  Given the choice between delaying the book yet again and hunting another home for it, Duncan and I decided that it would be in everyone's best interests to go with the latter.  It wasn't an easy or a fun decision, just as the months of discussion, doubt and worry that had led up to it hadn't been easy or fun.  But we felt it was the best move for us, both personally and professionally, and after that there really didn't seem to be much of a choice.

Spectral publisher and owner Simon Marshall-Jones has asked me not to go into detail about the problems that led up to that point, and out of respect for Simon and his ongoing health problems I'm happy to accede to that.  Frankly it's not something I'm desperately eager to talk about anyway; this has been a tough experience for everyone and the best thing now is undoubtedly for all involved to start picking up the pieces.  Duncan and I are hopeful of having another publisher take up the paperback and e-book editions, and I'll be trying to figure out something for the hardback, which was the original point of the collection.  We certainly haven't, and won't, give up on this book; for me that comes down to the fact that Duncan's illustrations are tremendously wonderful and deserve to be seen.  Likewise, I'm hopeful that Simon will find ways to pick Spectral up and get it back on its feet, and - though I feel there are certain details that warrant more thought than they've perhaps been given - the move to Tickety Boo is hopefully a first step towards that.  Small presses have come back from worse, and at its best Spectral was a valuable force in the industry.  It deserves another chance.

On a final note, however, I feel obliged to point out that I'm absolutely not okay with the criticism and abuse that's been addressed by certain adherents of the Marshall-Jones camp towards fellow writers who've decided to withdraw their work or their financial backing from Spectral.  Nor am I impressed by the people who've condoned or made excuses for such behaviour based on only a narrow and one-sided sliver of the facts.  Whether or not it happened out in the open, mistakes were unquestionably made here, people got hurt both professionally and financially in ways that could certainly have been avoided, and even if none of that were the case, those involved in commercial relationships have every right to defend their livelihoods in whatever ways they deem appropriate.  None of that warrants being sworn at and insulted; and I think we all basically know that, right?

Anyway, when I last looked it appeared that apologies were being tentatively made and barricades taken down, so hopefully we're past the ugly, recriminatory phase and into something more positive.  And that's about all I have to say on the matter, except to thank those who've been supportive of this project, of me, or of both over the last few months.  It's been an ugly mess, all told, but hopefully the worst is behind us, and one way or another you'll get to see The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, even if I have to publish it myself on my own flayed skin.

Wait, no, not that.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

2015: Lukewarm Catastrophe, Moderate Triumph

Well, I've left this rather late, haven't I?  But part of the reason for that, I think, is that I hate being vague and there's a disproportionate amount of news this year that I can't, for one reason and another, share here.

So, for example, all I can say about the beginning of the year is that something very bad indeed happened, something that threw all of my plans into chaos and had (has) the potential to end my writing career for good.  Many of those reading this, I imagine, will already know what I'm talking about, but my instinct is to not discuss a problem of such magnitude until I've managed to solve it once and for all - as, frustratingly, I still haven't almost a year later.

It seems like the rest of 2015 has been a struggle to crawl out from the shadow of that one event - if only due to the vast amount of extra work it's generated.  Nor did it help that the two projects I'd hoped to have out this year, my debut collection The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories and C21st Gods, both ran into problems outside of my control that left them drastically delayed.   Things even dried up on the short fiction sales front for a long spell in the first half of the year, and by the summer the situation was looking bleak indeed.

Which is about all of the bad news, because since then things have picked up dramatically.  Certainly those short story sales finally materialized, and in a veritable flood; 2015 turned out to be my most profitable year for short fiction yet, and by quite a margin.  There were return sales to Nightmare and Beneath Ceaseless Skies (A Killer of Dead Men, out now!), a couple of Digital Science Fiction anthologies, and that gorgeous collection from Flame Tree Publishing, amongst numerous other highlights.

As for work done, I'm about on schedule, and although it doesn't feel like it somehow, I've definitely produced more than in 2014 by quite some margin.  My medieval detective fantasy White Thorne is finished in first draft, and post-apocalyptic superhero noir The Uplifted is a couple of weeks off being at the same stage.  Between those two I managed to wedge in another sci-fi novella, Graveyard of Titans, and a handful of short stories, to a total word count of somewhere around 300'000 words.  I also did considerably more editing, with the final draft of To End All Wars completed way back in January, and Degenerates and my first attempt at a crime novel The Bad Neighbour both going through their second and third drafts.

Now here we are and it's a whole new year.  Looking back, I enjoyed 2015 rather a lot; it may have seen only mixed success on the writing front, but in general my life got substantively better, as I settled into my new existence back in the north of England and starting putting down some roots.  Which, ugh, sounds kind of weird now that I read over it ... but what I mean to say is, I made new friends and got back in touch with old ones, whilst also finally finishing off my house and finding time to expand my hobbies and social life a little.  None of which probably sounds like a big deal, but when you've spent more than half a decade of your life knowing you'd likely be moving to yet another part of the country within a few months, a little stability goes a long way.

And at least a few definitely positive things are going to happen in 2016.  I'm already thrilled for the release of my debut novella Patchwerk from Tor.com in a little under two weeks from now - especially since the early reception has been strong.  The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories should be out from Spectral at around the same time, and if it isn't then I have plans in place that will hopefully ensure that it still sees the light of day sooner rather than later.  C21st Gods has a new artist tenuously attached, and there's a good chance there'll be at least an issue or two of that out before year's end.  And then there's my biggest bit of news - and the other major thing I can't talk about.  I suppose I can safely so that I've sold a new novel on pitch, that I'm going to be writing it between now and May, and that there's a solid likelihood it will be out before the end of the year.  Needless to say, this is hugely exciting for any number of reasons, but the one that I keep coming back to is that it's relaxed some of the financial strain I'm under; I now have actual income, at least for a while, and that fact alone is enough to make 2016 a much more hopeful place than 2015 ever was.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Film Ramble: Top Ten Anime Shows Watched in 2015

Having grumbled about what a disappointing year it's been for genre cinema, I should perhaps admit that there may be another reason for me thinking that way: I've spent 2015 catching up on about two decades of the best anime I've missed.  And where I struggled to even fill that other top ten, this one was torturous; I could easily have added another five entries without bringing in anything that was less than superb.  That spot directly below, in particular, could have gone to any one of a number of shows: Le Chevalier D'EonKurau Phantom Memory and Durarara!! were all just as worthy, and largely lost out simply by being watched in moments when I didn't have my list-writing head on.

Point being, these ten shows are all exemplary, and eminently worth your time; nothing made it in by virtue of being merely good, and there's nothing I wouldn't recommend wholeheartedly to just about anyone with an interest in genre fiction, anime fan or no.

10. Spice and Wolf

In attempting to summarise this show, the best I've managed to come up with is "romantic medieval economic thriller", which on the one hand does it absolutely zero favours, but on the other is pretty much on the money.  (The same can be said for my backup description of medieval furry romance, but let's not go there.)  Spice and Wolf is partly about the developing affections between merchant Kraft Lawrence and rural harvest wolf-god Holo (yes, you read that right) but just as much about exploring its somewhat fantasized but still remarkably authentic-feeling recreation of medieval Europe, all the way down to episodes that revolve around the intricacies of currency conversion and medical theory.  That it manages to weave genuinely exciting plots out of such elements is amongst its achievements; another is just how unique it feels, and how fully committed to its off-kilter reality.  Trust me, you've never seen a show remotely like Spice and Wolf, and that alone should be good reason to seek it out.

9. Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann

Despite its good reputation and its pedigree - Gurren Lagann is from Studio Gainax, makers of Neon Genesis Evangelion and other masterpieces - I was quite ready to dislike Gurren Lagann after the first few episodes.  It was noisy, bombastic, weirdly designed and altogether a little obnoxious.

Then - hell, I don't know, it just won me over.  Basically, it kicked my arse.  That's the show that Gurren Lagann is; if you don't like it, it pummels you until you do, whilst shouting crazy slogans and bouncing about like a five year old mainlining sugar.  Yet for all that, looking back, it wasn't half as dumb as it seemed at times, and I struggle to think of anything I've watched that was more absurdly epic.  Long story short: I loved Gurren Lagann, but there were points where I didn't like it a great deal, though they were pretty scarce by the end.  Oh, and anyone who rates it highly should really watch Diebuster, which does all the same things a little better in the space of about three hours.  Just saying.

8. Angel Beats!

An astonishing example of anime's ability to throw a dozen things in a blender that have no right to be anywhere near each other, Angel Beats! is an insane mix of low-brow comedy, high school romance, gun fights, tragedy, extreme cuteness, musical interludes, philosophy and rampant emotion.  The fact that it just about holds together is an accomplishment; the fact that it does so while hitting some genuinely heart-wrenching notes in its closing episodes is plain astonishing.  I've seen reviews that complain about its unevenness of tone and the fact that it tries to cram too much into a half series, and I wouldn't say that those points are exactly unfair, but I'd rather see an overabundance of ideas over too few any day of the week - and if Angel Beats wants to accomplish more than the average full season can in half the time then I'm not about to criticise it for that.

7. Ergo Proxy

I sometimes wonder over how many self-proclaimed science fiction fans don't watch anime, given how many seminal works it's produced and how far ahead it is of US and European cinema in that regard.  Ergo Proxy is a case in point, a work of startling imagination and originality that deserves to be vastly more well known than it is.  Ergo Proxy starts out feeling like cyberpunk - extremely good cyberpunk, mind you - and then grows stranger and more challenging, though never at the expense of telling a compelling story.  It's dense as hell, admittedly, the kind of show that demands a rewatch or some poking around on the internets to understand its every nuance, but since when is that a bad thing?  Plus, the characters are flat out tremendous, from adorable child robot Pino to the badass but brattish Re-l, to sadsack Vincent, whose secrets are set to remake the world.  Ergo Proxy is a heady concoction indeed, dark, thrilling and original, and if you're ready for something more demanding then it might even beat out some of the entries below.

6. Haibane Renmei

A rewatch, this, of one of my all-time favourite shows, and had I not already seen it three times already it would likely have rated higher.  Simply put, Haibane Renmei is a fine, humanist work of fantasy that everyone should see at least once, and it's a terrible shame that it's not easier to track down a Region 2 copy these days.  Following new arrival Rakka in her quest to understand the strange community of privileged, angel-liking beings she finds herself born into, Haibane Renmei is a work of rich imagination, hypnotic and incessantly surprising from its beginning to its haunting, cathartic end.

It's also the oldest show on this list, hailing from all the way back in 2002.  Yet, though the animation has dated somewhat and wasn't cutting edge in its day, everything else holds up wonderfully: the score is just about perfect, the characters and backgrounds are delightful, the setting is unique and real-feeling, and all told I can't recommend this beautiful series enough.  If I wasn't focusing on new stuff here then it would be rated much, much higher.

5. From the New World

Wow, is From the New World really down to number five?  When I watched this at the start of the year I was certain nothing was going to top it.  Ignore that cutesy-looking picture, and the equally cutesy-looking box art that some idiot settled on, From the New World is a startling and startlingly bleak bit of sci-fi, telling its tale of a distant future where every human has the power to destroy their world utterly and of the society that's developed to protect itself from its own membership with verve, artistry and nary a moment of filler across twenty five episodes.  A stunning show in nearly every way, and its presence here at the middle of the list isn't a mark against it but a testament to how astounding the rest is.

Also, its quietly apocalyptic closing credits sequence is perhaps my favourite single piece of animation this year:


4. Shangri-La

I've been planning this article in my head basically all year, and, like From the New World, it took a long time for Shangri-la to get bounced from the top spot.  It was one of the first shows to really make an impression on me in 2015, and the passing months have only taken a little of the shine off it.  In fact, looking back, it only feels more original; what on the surface veers close to a great many anime tropes is actually rather brave and unconventional if you delve more deeply.  There's the way that it treats heavily on climate change, the breadth of characters, or the way the plot keeps refusing to go to the places you expect it to.  Unlike some of the other shows in this list, it doesn't set out to reinvent the wheel, but it comes awfully close in so many different ways that it's actually more satisfying as a whole.  Take, as one example, lead character Kuniko: judged on appearance alone she's not much different from countless anime heroines, and yet in practice she's tough and feisty in all the right ways, she's never above doubting herself, and as the show develops, it becomes her ability to pick herself up from disasters in believable fashion that makes the character compelling every bit as much as how handy she is with a giant metal boomerang.

Although, thinking about it, that giant metal boomerang is pretty cool too.

3. Toradora!

I'd assumed for a long while that LoveFilm's selection process was basically random, but Toradora! was the show that made me wonder if there wasn't some guiding consciousness there.  Here was a show that was idling away somewhere in the middle of my "not especially interested" list and I was less than pleased when it got picked over series I was actually eager to watch.  I mean, what the hell was this?  Some kind of teenage high school love triangle thing?  That cover doesn't include one single giant robot punching another giant robot.

And now here we are, the end of 2015, and oh man I love Toradora! so much.  It's a show so good that even though I didn't much care in theory for what it was - actually a love quintet, but far more a coming of age drama / romantic comedy - I still adored it utterly.   Toradora! is one of the wittiest, most genuine, most affecting works of its type I've ever come across, a show peopled with characters that start out as tropes and then reveal impossible amounts of depth, until what seems a fairly straightforward set-up winds up as a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on the complexities of human relationships.  Which I realise sounds kind of intense, so I guess I should reiterate how damn funny and charming Toradora! is right from beginning to end.  And whoever it is at LoveFilm who seems determined to dictate my anime watching, I hope I get to buy them a drink one of these days.

2. R.O.D the TV

You know how I bounced Haibane Renmai down because it was a rewatch?  Well, so is R.O.D the TV and it's still at number two.  Because, yes, it's actually that great.  A sequel to perhaps my favourite OVA of all time, Read or Die, and the Read or Dream Manga series  - hence that odd title - R.O.D takes the sort of tremendously strange idea that could probably only work in anime and then runs headfirst with it.  In its alternate world, papermasters have telepathic control over paper, bending it to any shape and purpose.  When three papermaster sisters find themselves guarding famous author Nenene Sumiregawa they're also drawn inadvertently into increasingly shadowy events, and ultimately a war between two dangerous and amoral world powers - one of which happens to be the British Library.

Honestly, it really was a toss-up by this point, and it's probably fair to say that half the reason R.O.D the TV missed out on the top spot was because I wanted to favour a more recent show that's easier to lay your hands on.  Still, it's tremendously refreshing to see anything that features a primarily female core cast and builds most of its themes and drama around the intricacies of female relationships, whilst at the same time feeling no need to belabor that fact.  In fact, the best moments in R.O.D are all built on subtleties of character interaction that accumulate over its course until, in its bleaker second half, the very real prospect of harm befalling any of its core cast is practically painful.  Which is a long-winded way of saying that I really love these characters, and for that reason over any other, I really love the show that's been built around them.

1.  Xam'd: Lost Memories

It don't even know how to begin to talk about Xam'd.  It's a complex show, busy with themes and characters and places and plot lines, and perhaps the fact that it takes a while to tune into - along with the fact that it does't make much effort to explain its terminology, of which there's a lot - is going to be off-putting for some.  And yet every one of those elements is utterly marvelous, and so the effort pays off in spades: it tries to do so much more than almost any show I've seen, finding new ways into familiar ideas and creating a rich, detailed, lived-in setting, whilst all the time looking and sounding absolutely stunning, and throughout its twenty six episodes it barely slips up for a moment.

More than anything, Xam'd made me think of Ghibli's output - partly due to some direct nods, partly due to its determination to understand and forgive its more villainous characters, but mostly due to its sheer humanity - and there can be no higher compliment.  For that matter, it's so good that I've determined to track down as much work by Studio Bones as I possibly can, which isn't exactly a chore when their output includes shows like Full Metal Alchemist and Eureka Seven, but still.  Xam'd is splendid, epic, smart and haunting science fiction, and in a year when I've watched a great deal of extraordinarily good anime, I'd still recommend it without hesitation over everything else I've seen.